Eccentric millionaire hacker seeks reduced sentence in fiery doomsday tunnel death

A Maryland man convicted in the death of a friend who helped him build a network of underground tunnels has been sentenced to a reduced sentence and may soon be out of prison.

Daniel Beckwitt, 30, was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2019 after a jury convicted him of second-degree murder of “depraved heart” and involuntary manslaughter in the September 2017 murder of 21-year-old Askia Khafra.

But a state appeals court in 2021 overturned the murder conviction, saying Mr Beckwitt’s behavior did not show “extreme disregard for human life” that had a reasonable likelihood of leading to death. The Maryland Court of Appeals also upheld his conviction of involuntary manslaughter.

On Tuesday, the eccentric millionaire’s prison sentence was reduced to five years; He has already served almost three years in prison and is legally eligible for parole for having served more than a quarter of his sentence.

“I hope this is your opportunity to give back to our community,” said Margaret Schweitzer, a judge at the Montgomery Circuit Court. “I hope you do what you can, which is to use your intelligence for good.”

The bizarre and tragic case arose out of the paranoia of Beckwitt, a native of the DC suburbs who lived in a hoarder’s paradise when he became obsessed with nuclear attack.

And it ended in the horrific death of a young man he befriended to save himself from the North Korean attack he believed was imminent.

Mr. Beckwitt’s run-ins with law enforcement began while he was still in college.

He eventually launched hacking attacks while studying at the University of Illinois and pleaded guilty to committing computer fraud with no jail time when caught Washington Post reported.

Khafra, also intelligent, ambitious and tech-savvy, grew up not far from Beckwitt – the middle-class son of immigrants from Trinidad. But he died in 2017 after a fire broke out while working for $150 a day in completely unsafe conditions that a court of law should have clearly deemed dangerous for a “normally circumspect” person.

The entire tragic saga hinges on the bizarre online and in-person relationships forged by a “strange” man who his lawyers said had no malicious intentions – but whose actions constituted the “corrupt heart” charge, prosecutors argued. That means an “extreme disregard” for human life.

Khafra wasn’t the first person hired by Beckwitt to build a labyrinth of tunnels emanating from his DC suburb — tunnels so unstable that authorities still haven’t been able to determine how extensive they could be. The eccentric only child “took elaborate steps to keep the project a secret,” the AP reported.

He first met Khafra under an online pseudonym when the younger Maryland man was looking for seed capital for an app startup. Beckwitt gave the young entrepreneur $5,000, but the venture didn’t work; At that time he asked for his help for his makeshift bunker.

“He tried to make Khafra believe they were digging the tunnels in Virginia instead of Maryland by having him put on ‘blackout glasses’ before taking him on a long drive. Khafra had a cell phone with him in the tunnels, but Beckwitt used internet spoofing to make it appear they were digging in Virginia,” the AP reported.

Although construction was taking place in a quiet suburb about 10 miles from Washington DC — populated by tons of government employees — neighbors were unaware that the grid stretched in three directions beneath them.

Armed with a jackhammer, jackhammer and pickaxe, Khafra worked diligently for days on end, eating and sleeping underground and relieving himself in a bucket lowered by Beckwitt.

The tunnel was fitted with lighting, an air circulation system and a heater – but they weren’t remotely compliant, particularly when it came to the electrical system. This reality was proven on the afternoon of September 10, 2017, when the smell of smoke prompted Khafra to flee.

He climbed 15 feet up a shaft and into a cluttered basement, where he was pinned and eventually died as flames engulfed the room. Beckwitt reportedly tried to get him out when a fire broke out and also yelled for help from neighbors – but Khafra’s naked, charred beyond recognition body was eventually recovered.

The homeowner then reportedly gave evasive answers about exactly what his friend had been doing under the two-story home. But investigators – and eventually a jury – were presented with a disturbing scenario.

They found that the basement was clogged with junk, except for a narrow, winding path between the bunker hole and the courtyard door. None of the windows offered an escape route — some were blocked with plywood and metal, and others too small for a person to fit inside.

Investigators determined that Khafra managed to get past an oven and through a laundry room in the middle of the basement. There he climbed onto a rolling office chair, perhaps hoping to grab a fire extinguisher over the washing machine or break through the window.

But by that point, his blood was saturated with carbon monoxide, causing a disorientation that set him back. He landed on a welding machine and lost consciousness before being burned to death.

News of the shocking death — and the chilling project that led to it — stunned those who lived in the upscale suburb who had known Beckwitt, at least marginally, since childhood.

“The whole thing was bizarre,” Anne-Marie Kleinman, a longtime neighbor, told the Post. “The bunker had no logic – and it always seemed very logical to me.”

Megan Coleman, one of Beckwitt’s attorneys, said the penalties for involuntary manslaughter are significantly lower than for a murder conviction.

“Both appellate courts have said there was no malice in this case,” Coleman said. “For us, that would justify a lower penalty.”

At Beckwitt’s trial, another member of his legal team similarly argued that the tragedy was “an accident.”

“An accident at a house occupied by a very strange young man who had a friend who was working with him in a very strange situation,” his lawyer Robert Bonsib said.

Khafra’s father, Dia, said last month that the state’s decision to bring charges was “illustrative of a flawed justice system” and believed that Beckwitt’s nine-year sentence was already too lenient.

“As a father who tragically lost his son at the tender age of 21, I am very, very disappointed,” said Dia Khafra.

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